Real Goals in Action

Laura Francis


Real Goals in Action

Establishing Effective Mentoring Activities

You’re likely familiar with SMART goals, the tried and true way many people learn to develop goals. And while SMART goals have their place and serve a purpose, SMART goals actually guide the setting of objectives, not goals. To establish developmental goals, we need REAL goals.

The REAL acronym stands for Relevant, Experimental, Aspirational, and Learning-based.

  • Relevant – indicate why it is important and worthwhile.
  • Experimental – imply development activity that will lead to greater insight.
  • Aspirational – identify an area of desired development.
  • Learning-based – express outcomes that are focused on gaining capability.

When it comes to personal or professional development, REAL goals provide a clear criterion against which activity can be planned and progress can be assessed. For example, a REAL goal may be that you want to “Become more effective at developing others.” When you apply the REAL principles, you would state that: “I want to improve my ability to identify and bring the best out in those who report to me. I want to understand and guide others into greater personal effectiveness by prioritizing developmental goal setting and dialogue.”

Because REAL goals focus on development (rather than objectives), these goals are best applied in conjunction with a mentor, coach, or advisor. The development conversation that occurs as a result of REAL goals provides the fuel you will need to apply, assess, and adjust your goals.

With this in mind, here are some considerations for putting REAL goals into action.

Plan to fail. This may feel counterintuitive, but REAL goals are more effective when they surface limitations in understanding or ability. These shortcomings serve as the catalyst for deeper developmental discussion and exploration between you and your mentor, coach, or advisor. It will be more impactful to have thoughtful and meaningful conversations about what you don’t know or what you failed at, then it will be to only talk about the things you did right or well, or the successes you’ve had.

Neon sign that says People fail forward to success.

Set short feedback cycles.

REAL goals need to be assessed and discussed routinely, or you risk losing the generative power that comes from new learning experiences. It is better to have discussions right away after an action was taken toward a goal so that the details are fresh in everyone’s mind. Because of this, it is preferable to plan a small action that can easily be taken, and then discuss the experience within a few days.

Discuss the gory details. REAL goals should lead you to take actions that are uncomfortable and that produce awkward results—and that is a good thing! Life is messy. Nothing is ever perfect, and the challenges we overcome go a long way toward building not only knowledge, but also character. Therefore, it is helpful to avoid the impulse to only tell the pleasant bits when discussing developmental discoveries. Push into the areas of personal difficulty. It is healthy and necessary to discuss your approach, attitude, and observations surrounding the planned activity.

Test your assumptions.

REAL goals will challenge the ways that you are used to seeing and reacting to things. Because REAL goals focus on personal and professional development (rather than just project outcomes), they can help you gain a deeper understanding of yourself and give you a way to progress in your development. In fact, when learning new behaviors or skills, it is common to face uncertainty and experience unexpected results. Both uncertainty and surprise speak to areas of unexplored understanding, which actually provides a wonderful opportunity for you to dive into. Discussing your assumptions with your mentor, coach, or advisor can lead to a breakthrough in thought and action.

red paper boat leading white ones, leadership concept

Stay the course.

REAL goals typically take focused and sustained effort to produce lasting results. The types of goals you work on with the REAL model often tackle the big and gnarly issues in your life. For example, you may focus on becoming a strategic thinker, or maybe you want to work on becoming a better communicator. These are not goals that will be achieved overnight; nor are they goals that can be glossed over. Be warned that these goals may take time, and be kind to yourself when working toward these goals. Remember, when developing new skills, behaviors, or understandings, you need to be prepared to take many small steps before realizing the benefits.

You will be able to achieve amazing results by using REAL goals as a focal point for your professional development. If you happen to be a manager of others, work to help them understand the principles behind REAL goals and commit to applying this model to activities and conversations you have for developmental purposes. If you are an individual learner, talk to your mentor, coach, or advisor about REAL goals and ways you can start using them in your development conversations.

We have helped hundreds of organizations accomplish their mentoring goals over the years, and we’d love to help you too. Contact us to discuss your mentoring needs. Our experts are always here to help. Because at MentorcliQ, we believe you can do more with mentoring.

Laura Francis